Is it possible to apologize to a dog? I’m not sure there is an answer to that question. But I wish there was, and I’d love to have a discussion about it. Here’s what got me thinking about apologies to friends who don’t understand all the intricacies of human language:
Last week I was working Skip on something he’s struggled with– driving the sheep in a straight line, say at a 45 degree angle, as if toward ten o’clock on a clock face. This is relatively easy if the sheep are happy to go in that direction.
The challenge is when the sheep want, badly, to move at a 90 degree angle, toward, perhaps, eight o’clock. Skip, reading the pressure, wants to flank around to the front of the sheep (“overflanking”), which stops the sheep, and ends up creating frustrated sheep, frustrated dogs, and frustrated handlers. Dogs do it because they read the pressure, and are afraid they’ll lose control of the sheep. This way, in their minds at least, they can say “I’ve got ’em!” But it also means that you can’t really move them where you want them to go. We’ve been working on him getting comfortable riding the pressure like a surfer rides a wave, and he’s been doing really well, thanks to some lessons from Samantha Jones.
So, last week, I was asking Skip to drive the sheep into a small pasture that’s angled to the right of us. The sheep want to go hard left. The best I’ve been able to do previously is to stop him from over flanking by saying Lie Down, but that’s far from ideal. Better would be Skip walking steadily forward, pushing just enough on the sheep’s shoulders to keep them moving in the right direction.
We’d gotten about half way to the gate when Skip started to flank around to the left, exactly in the way I didn’t want him to do. I said Lie Down! a bit grumpily, anticipating that Skip was going to keep flanking until he faced the sheep directly and stopping all forward movement. As the words came out of my mouth I realized he was slowing down himself, doing exactly what he needed to do to keep driving the sheep in the right direction. He was right, and I was wrong.
You could tell it threw him. Skip is super sensitive, and I’m as sure as sure can be that he thought he was doing the right thing, and then my tone of voice suggested it wasn’t. How could he not have been confused? We managed to get the sheep into the pasture with no elegance whatsoever, Skip reverting to his old ways and me feeling furious at myself.
I know. We all make mistakes. But, given how hard Skip and I have worked in the last month on this particular issue, and how well he’s been doing, this one felt larger than most.
I wanted to apologize. Actually, I did. I said, immediately, something like “Skip, you were right! I’m so sorry!” I flapped my hands in the air as we do when we’re communicating to another human, as if Skip would understand it meant that I knew I messed up and I was sorry. I doubt very much that Skip had a clue what I meant.
Or, did he? Does anyone remember a study that found that dogs behaved as if they understand the difference between being stepped on by mistake versus something less benevolent? And of course, we know about the studies of primatologists, who have found numerous examples of reconciliation and consolation in apes who were previously in conflicts. But reconciliation is not the same, exactly, as an apology, and dogs are not primates.
It doesn’t seem out of the question that something akin to a human apology exists in dogs. Domestic dogs are hyper-social, being one of the most social species on earth. As highly social animals, they have an elaborate and nuanced system of visual communication. Many of their postures–I’m thinking appeasement here, are not dissimiliar to the visual signals we humans give to others. But, appeasement is not an apology. Or is it? Or, at least, could it be some of the time?
So, can we apologize to dogs, in a way that is meaningful to them? (Please do not tell me that you’ve never had to apologize to your dog.) I have wanted to do so before when I make a mistake working the dogs on sheep, or when I’ve inadvertently run into one of them, or stepped on a paw. Usually, I’ve said something like “Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do that…,” or, “You were right! Sorry!” Did they understand? No idea!
I’d LOVE to hear what you have to say about this, or any research you know of that would shed light on the issue. With the irony noted, my apologies to you all that I haven’t spent more time on this, research wise, but today I’m on catch up with the weeds and the dog exercises and my exercises and the endless emails and the messy house . . . after a great fun sheepdog trial this last weekend.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: First off, my mistake working Skip did not seem to cause any long term harm this last weekend. Skip ran in the Land of Lincoln Sheepdog Trial in Illinois last weekend, and his driving was spot on. We didn’t get great scores, but both of his drives were gorgeous, and that’s what we’ve been working on. If you’re interested, here’s his run (six minutes), video taped by Jim:
He did a good outrun but overflanked at the end (lost 2/20 points), had to compensate on the lift but did his usual lovely, quiet lift and had a really nice fetch through the fetch gates. The drive, the part we’ve struggled with in the past, was really nice. It starts at minute 3, and ends at about 4:50 (note in the middle he moves the sheep just behind the fetch panels, just exactly where he should be). He did overflank at around 2:34 (the pressure in that direction was extremely strong, the sheep could see other sheep on another field), but we got through it and had a 25/30 point outrun, our best ever. I messed up at the pen, argh! Beginner’s mistake (should have aimed the sheep for the gate, not the opening to it), but overall I was really happy with him.
We did okay in the second run, another nice drive, but he had trouble lifting the sheep, who had their heads down on a pile of a bushel’s worth of corn, and so ran out of time and got no drive points. So, we have our marching orders. I need to work on penning, he needs to learn how to get sheep whose heads are lost in a pan of grain going. I’ve started working on that already. What matters most is that we both had fun and I think I can speak for him that we feel more and more like great partners every time to compete.
Miss Maggie is doing well! She actually got to be off leash for brief periods of time this weekend, two and a half weeks after surgery. In some situations she looks READY TO RUMBLE, but we noticed that when Skip tried his usual D’head body slamming to get her to play, before I could stop him, she got quieter. She has a week and a half before she’s totally recovered, so we’re being slow and cautious, even though she swears she is ready to play tug games with Skip in the living room. Patience my sweet, patience.
Here are the two at the trial grounds, Maggie taking her first off leash walk ever. Whee!
Skip’s news is that we finally got a Chilly Buddy vest for him, and it makes a huge difference, on his exterior anyway. The company claims that the vest, by deflecting the sun’s rays, can decrease the coat temperature from 143 degrees to 103 on a 90 degree day. I could easily feel a difference when I put my hand on his head versus his back under the vest. What I don’t know is how that translates to an internal temperature.
I’ve reached out to the company with that very question, and got a call back within a few minutes. Impressive. I spoke to Mr. Leandro Monteiro who told me that they’d never done that research, but now that I asked, was intrigued by the question. Right now it looks like all the data is based on coat temperature and behavior–Leandro’s own agility dog used to seek the shade, but with the vest on was happy to stay in the sun. I can say that Skip looked much cooler–tongue shorter, less panting–than he normally would have on this exceptionally hot and humid day at a friend’s last week.
Our yard continues to look like an Animal Planet extravaganza, with chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits cavorting at every hour. All of these creatures can cause us a massive amount of harm, especially in winter and early spring, but we still are enjoying the show. Mostly we are reveling in the bird life now that we have feeders up. Here’s a Rose-breasted Grosbeak illustrating how he got his name.
I’ll end with a day lily, adorned with its picturesque stamens, joined by some black oil sunflower seeds at the flower’s base that fell out of the feeder!
But so . . . Your turn. Can we apologize to dogs in a way that is meaningful to them? Have you tried? When? Why?
I leave you with no apologies for my wish that you have a kind and loving day, and that no matter what is happening in your life, there is something you can be grateful for.